Apocalypse Cancelled


By Luke Melia, Jamie Norman & Valerie Quatrocchi, Geoff Jones, David Anderson, Mike Smith, Dennis O’Shea, Kat Humphries, Grame Stewart, Dan Wilkinson, Leor King, INKY CONDITIONS & various (Dreamspace Books)
ISBN: 978-1-70859-669-9 (PB)

The following review contains language and expletives used by grown-ups. If you are offended or upset by words, and descriptions of rude stuff, perhaps you will want to give this one a miss.

We’ve all just been through an horrific experience and it’s certainly wedged itself into the global collective unconsciousness on many levels. I’ll wager it has forced many people to reassess the world and their place in it. On that note comes a wickedly mordant, topically charged satirical anthology of comics, prose and poetry from veteran indie author/publisher Luke Melia and his band of literary merry pranksters…

Likely suspects on the next Extinction Event list are limited and we can all cite them thanks to many, many movies and media outlets. The premise of this themed collection is a killer asteroid drawing an unmistakeable, irrevocable bead on the planet. Once it’s spotted, confirmed and made public, humanity reacts pretty much as you’d expect – with a few intriguing exceptions as detailed herein – before the worst thing possible happens: the bloody thing misses Earth and everybody still alive must deal with what they did when they thought the end was literally here…

An enticingly trenchant exploration and assessment of human nature in a shotgun blast of illustrated novellas, vignettes, epigrams and assorted poetic forms, the wild ride opens (and ultimately circularly closes) with ‘Prime Minister’s Speech’by Luke Melia: a rap-style 10 Downing Street press conference very much in the pompously profuse and profligate manner of our current old-school Glorious Leader, but with a hearty dose of biting whimsy salting the pot…

Précising the mindset of the masses as the big rock closes in, ‘Apocalypse Please’ precedes the first of a sequence of Police Memos addressing rapidly-shifting constabulary priorities and a jaunty ‘Limerick’ by Mike Smith, before Melia’s prose novella ‘Did You Have a Nice Weekend?’ hones in on one recurring aspect of the aftermath of Armageddon interruptus.

When the event fizzles, go-getting businessman Tony Clarke reassembles the remains of his crack team to capitalise on the reconstruction of society. Sadly, the uncontrolled, panicked personal excesses of those presumed end days may have resulted in words and actions that not everyone in the office can forgive or forget…

Melia’s vignette ‘Running Out of Tomorrows’ proves not everyone knows how to let go, before Smith’s epigrammatic treatise on ‘Terry’s Best Friend’ segues into Jamie Norman & Valerie Quatrocchi’s comic strip ‘Little Rock’ wherein man and beast each find a new way to wait for death. A police report on Cannibalism is balanced by ‘FUCK!’ (Leor King) as a cult leader is lost for words – or deeds – after which ‘Once Upon an Apocalypse’ by Geoff Jones shares one last grim bedtime tale between a father and his little princess…

More Melia moments follow as ‘The Conspiracy Wolf’ outlines a dedicated doomsday fantabulist’s dilemma and dysmorphic delusional ‘Eleanor’ finds an identity at last, whilst David Anderson & Melia explore a gamer’s solution in ‘Apocalypse Online’.

The pressing business of finishing a binge watch marathon occupies Dan Wilkinson in ‘En Route’ whilst Melia’s ‘First Day of School’ eases us into his examination of faith under inexorable pressure in Nun’s tale ‘Dear Lord’

The crime of Murder is reassessed in a police report as ‘A Big Change’ (by INKY CONDITIONS/Stevie Mitchell) offers cartoon commentary before ‘Louise’s Crater’ (Smith) sees possible spectral intervention for a single dad and his traumatised son when the end of days results in enforced separation due to a swift uptick of sales and compulsory overtime in underground bomb shelters…

A brace of Melia shorts opens with a bungee jumper in ‘Saving Grace’ and asks the space rock what it wants in ‘Journey’, before ‘Shuttle’ (Dennis O’Shea & Melia) observes how Earth’s latest astronauts handle the crisis, after which Benjamin Parkin’s ‘HIM’ homes in on a serial killer’s liberated spouse and Melia’s ‘Salvation Day’ takes us into the future when the crisis has been at last reduced to just another bank holiday.

Visually explicit, Melia & Anderson’s ‘We’re All Fucked!’ explores the plebian side of orgiastic release, after which a police report on Uncategorised Offences and Anderson’s ‘Bedside’ vigil lead to a delightfully different take from Kat Humphries as a string of loners bond over animal care in prose homily ‘Cat Lovers Wanted’

For ‘Bumping into People at Orgies’ Melia dryly dissects the morning after the night before, and Smith addresses passion and paranoia in ‘It’s Outside’ before O’Shea dabbles with just desserts – and entrees – in a tale of bullying entitled ‘Howard the Coward’.

Domestics reports get a police revision and Melia recounts the fate of ‘Yappy’ before Grame Stewart gets extremely down and dirty in a tale of ‘Dark Desires’ fulfilled, after which Melia’s ‘Freed’ addresses a new self-help system and Norman reveals the contributions of veteran nonconformist power engineer ‘Big Rock’. A mini masterpiece of character writing from Melia offers a tantalising counterpoint to liberated madness in ‘Business as Usual’ with data entry clerk Melvin Toddliving his perfect life as society crumbles. It’s not what you think…

Optimism in O’Shea’s ‘World Piece’ is countered by dark malice in Ryan Howe’s ‘Repent’ before ‘Bunker’ by O’Shea & Melia takes us into the future to reveal what today’s survivalist nuts did when the crash came, before a police report on Public Order and wry comic strip ‘Samson’ (Melia & Bobby Peñafiel) lead to a psychological aberration back at work in Melia’s ‘Cinnamon Glaze’. The entire calamity confection then concludes with the aforementioned redux performance of ‘Prime Minister’s Speech Part 2’, capping the madness with more – and better – of the same…

Perhaps best summed up by exalted prophet “Boring” Bob Grover of The Piranhas “The whole thing’s daft, I don’t know why. You have to laugh or else you’d cry”…

Conversely, you can simply read this and make up your mind in the comfort of your own retreat from reality…
All right reserved. Each piece © 2021 the relevant author.

I.R.$. volume 2: Blue Ice


By Vranken & Desberg; coloured by Coquelicot and translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-74-8 (Album PB)

As I’ve perpetually stated, the most appealing aspect of European comics is the sheer breadth of genres, styles and age-ranges their efforts address and their huge readerships support. Thus, this quirky exceedingly readable, all-action Franco-Belgian thriller-series with a tantalising twist offering a deliciously different spin on the tried-and-true trope of driven mystery-man superspy.

The unlikely champion of these sagas is a civil servant with the US government, which once upon a time started employing super-cool, infallibly effective special agents to go after the type of tax-dodger totally beyond the reach of the law. Maybe one day, fact will pilfer from fiction and perhaps every nation will have one…

Belgian writer Stephen Desberg is one of France’s most popular comics authors. He was born in Brussels in 1954, son of an American lawyer (the European distribution agent for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) and a French mother. Stephen began studying law at Université Libre de Bruxelles but dropped out to follow a winding path into the comics biz.

He began with plots and eventually scripts for Will (Willy Maltaite) on Tif et Tondu in Le Journal de Spirou, growing into a reliable jobbing scribe on established strips for younger readers before launching his own (the Stéphane Colman illustrated) Billy the Cat (a funny animal strip, not the DC Thomson superhero series).

Thereafter came 421 with Eric Maltaite, Arkel (Marc Hardy), Jimmy Tousseul (with Daniel Desorgher) and many others. During the 1980s he gradually redirected his efforts to material for older readerships (such as The Garden of Desire) and in 1999 created contemporary thriller IR$. Historical conspiracy thriller Le Scorpion joined his catalogue of hits a year later.

Bernard Vranken was an award-winning artist by the time he was fifteen. A year later he was working for Le Journal deTintin. Whilst studying architecture at Saint-Luc, he took some comics courses by legendary illustrator Eddy Paape at St. Gilles and his true career-path was set.

Vranken was crafting short stories for A Suivre when he met Desberg. In 1996 they collaborated for the first time on epic romance Le Sang Noir. Three years later they traded love for money with I.R.$.…

The premise is simple and delicious, and Cinebook’s second translated English edition from 2009 once again doubles the bang for your buck by combining third and fourth European albums – Blue Ice and Narcocratie – into one compelling compilation.

Blue Ice (originally released in 2001) opens with stylish American bean-counter Larry B. Max relaxing in his sumptuous home. The quiet start offers the observant reader a few hints into Larry’s past – and motivations – before he renews his odd, long-distance, anonymous relationship with favourite chat-line girl Gloria Paradise.

Larry hates complications in his life but there’s just something about her voice and attitude…

A little later he attends a piano rehearsal and promises his little sister he’ll be there for the recital on Friday. It’s just asking for trouble…

Meanwhile downtown, three very bad men are meeting excessively violent ends while Los Angeles airport sees an American passenger from Mexico trigger a wave of security alerts. Typically, though, just too late for the inattentive security staff to do more than watch him spectacularly disappear into the city, leaving two dead agents behind…

Later at DEA HQ, a high-level meeting of numerous Federal agencies convenes to discuss Ryan Ricks. During his tour in Vietnam, Ricks began managing the money of his platoon-mates, subsequently using it to make a killing on the Stock Exchange.

Slightly wounded, he then shipped out for home to be eagerly pursued by finance houses who saw his unique gift for using money and making it. Ricks settled in at a major tobacco company and started creating wealth…

Nobody noticed – or perhaps cared – that Ricks was making side-deals, nor that being utterly amoral, he went where the money was to be easily found: terrorist nations…

When the IRS found out he was using dirty cash to make the company more money – and making himself fabulously rich at the same time – Ryan was fired. He claimed to have no understanding of why terrorist money was bad, while profits from giving people cancer was good…

Ricks was a man ahead of his time. Even before the Cold War ended, he was saying New Capitalism would be beyond any laws, and consequently pursued that philosophy to its logical extreme. Specialising in creating off-shore accounts, he became the world’s greatest money-launderer, devising an international network for tax evasion.

That’s when Larry Max first encountered him, but the wily finance wizard simply vanished, with a swathe of alphabetised American agencies waiting for him to turn up ever since…

Now twelve years later he’s back in the USA, so scores can be settled and pride regained. However, some bigwigs are unconvinced. With so many major players in the Monterrey Cartel gunned down in the street, the feds would rather concentrate on a clearly-brewing turf war than some nebulous cash-converter.

Late-arriving Larry is “only” a tax collector, not a true cop, but he can’t help wondering why they all think the events are unconnected…

Consulting his own researches, Mr Max coolly exposes a traitor in the cross-agency conclave and foresees things becoming extremely dramatic for the Monterrey Cartel, but is fobbed off with only two agents to assist him. Hanson’s shadowy spook-show has access to covert satellite surveillance and phone monitoring whereas Ella Hidalgo of DEA is a stone killer everyone calls “Blue Ice”. She’s going to be useful once lead starts flying…

Across the border, the prediction has already come true. Aged, untouchable head of the clan Dion Monterrey has begun cleaning house, eradicating all dissent before heading to LA for the most important meeting of his life…

Aided by cutting-edge covert spy technology, the hunt for Ricks moves into high gear and it’s not long before Larry and Hildalgo are quietly closing in. Then, a second traitor inadvertently tips his hand too soon and the astounded IRS agent has the key piece of information he needs to complete the puzzle…

Ultimate harbinger of unfettered Free Enterprise, Ricks has returned to America because he’s acting as facilitator for the deal of the ages: selling off one of world’s largest drugs cartels…

Larry is not satisfied. The facts simply don’t add up, and as he ponders the mystery and sweats the details, Ricks is closing the deal and Dion is ensuring there’s no one left to contest the sale…

With every party understandably edgy, the final handover is set to occur on the roof of a luxury shopping mall. While fanatical Ricks describes the way business will be conducted in the until-now inefficiently managed, under-exploited market of modern coke consumption, the good guys quietly close in but they have grossly underestimated the guile and paranoia of their targets. Soon the entire scene is a hellish firefight of lethal proportions…

As ever, the end result is a pile of bodies, massive collateral damage and Ricks a ghost in the wind, but this time Larry is hot on his tail…

Without pause for breath the story concludes in Narcocracy as Max arrives in Tijuana, just as the next move in Ricks’ grand strategy goes live: acquisition and expansion…

Before dawn breaks in the seedy hellhole, many of the proud cartel hold-outs opposing the new order are gone and the game plan is clear. It’s not consolidation or merger Ricks and his mystery backers have in mind for the already lucrative drug trade, it’s a hostile takeover…

The only fly in the ointment is a certain white-haired American implacably following the money magician everywhere: someone proving utterly impossible to kill…

Help comes from a most unexpected quarter as the Mexican Federal Bureau of Narcotics picks up the taxman, claiming he’s about to blow a massive sting operation. Larry keeps his thoughts to himself when meeting the country’s top brass to warn them of Rick’s current ambitious activities. After all, money talks; he’s in a country notorious for corruption and the wizard of wealth-creation has more cash than any other crook in the world…

Soon Max is partnered with the Bureau’s top investigators and chasing his elusive quarry, but even though Larry knows a trap is waiting to spring somewhere, he’s not sure when or who’s going to trigger it. Moreover, behind all the double-dealing and staggering slaughter, he can perceive the kind of chicanery only real, Harvard-style business types are capable of.

All he has to do is find out who and prove it…

Inevitably the hammer falls and bodies drop again. For a moment, it looks like someone’s going to miss a piano concert…

Complex, fast-paced, suspenseful and incredibly violent, this yarn is pure movie blockbuster: a sleek, lithe action-fest to seduce any thriller addict. IR$ is a splendidly effective, stylishly gritty series to delight fans of modern mayhem in all it’s artistic forms.

Only death and taxes are inescapable, and Larry B. Max offers either or both in one suavely economical package…
Original edition © 1977 Editions du Lombard (Le Lombard/Dargaud SA) 2001-2002 by Desberg &Vrancken. English translation 2008 © Cinebook Ltd.

Bob Powell’s Complete Jet Powers


By Bob Powell with James Vance, John Wooley, Steve Rude & various (Kitchen Sink Books/Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-764-5 (HB) eISBN:978-1-63008-646-6

Like every art form, comics can be readily divided into masterpieces and populist pap, but that damning assessment necessarily comes with a bunch of exclusions and codicils.

Periodical publications, like pop songs, movies and the entirety of television’s output (barring schools programming and I’m not sure about them, anymore), are designed to sell stuff to masses of consumers.

As such, the product must reflect the target and society at a specific moment in time and perforce quickly adapt and change with every variation in taste or fashion. Although very much an artefact of its time, I consider the Buzzcocks single “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” to be the perfect pop song, but I’m not going to waste time trying to convince anybody of the fact.

For me, and perhaps only for me, it just is.

The situation is most especially true of comics – especially those created before the medium gained any kind of popular credibility: primarily deemed by their creators and publishers as a means of parting youngsters from cash. The fact that so many have been found to possess redeeming literary and artistic merit or social worth is simply post hoc rationalisation.

Creators striving for better, doing the very best they could because of their inner artistic drives, were being rewarded with just as meagre a financial reward as the shmoes just phoning it in for the paycheck…

That sad state of affairs in periodical publication wasn’t helped by the fact that most editors thought they knew what the readership wanted – safe, prurient gratification – and usually they were right.

Even so, from such swamps gems occasionally emerged…

A certain kind of two-fisted, brawny science fiction has always been part-&-parcel of the comics experience, and retrospectives – no matter how impressive – generally come with some worrisome cultural baggage. However, ways can be found to accommodate crystallised or outdated attitudes, especially when reading from a suitably detached historical perspective and even more so for many when the art is crafted by a master storyteller like Bob Powell.

After all, even though change is gradually coming now, it’s not that big a jump from fictionalised 1950s futures to the filmic metropolises of today where tech-bolstered (and usually white) Adonises with godlike power paternalistically save us all from something unimaginable, or our own folly, whilst winning over some initially unresponsive piece of feminine exotica…

I truly adore all comics in all genres from all eras, but sometimes the “guilty pleasure” alarm on my conscience just redlines every so often and I can’t stop it. Repeat after me, it’s not real. It’s not real, it’s never been real…

As businessmen, editors and publishers “knew” what hormonal kids wanted to see and they gave it to them. It’s no different today. Peruse any comic-shop shelf or cover listings site and see how many fully-clad, small-breasted females you can spot and how many hunky heroes pack teeny-weeny pistols…

No more prevaricating. Let’s talk about Bob…

Born in 1916 in Buffalo, New York, Stanley Robert Pawlowski studied at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan before joining one of the earliest comics-packaging outfits: the Eisner-Iger Shop.

He was a solid and dependable staple of American comicbooks’ Golden Age, illustrating many key features. He drew original Jungle Queen Sheena in Jumbo Comics plus other Jungle Girl features and Spirit of ’76 for Harvey’s Pocket Comics.

Powell handled assorted material for Timely titles such as Captain America in All-Winners Comics, Tough Kid Comics and sundry genre material like Gale Allen and the Women’s Space Battalion for anthologies like Planet Comics,Mystery Men Comics and Wonder Comics.

Relatively recently he was revealed to have co-scripted/created Blackhawk as well as drawing Loops and Banks in Military Comics and so many more now near-forgotten strips: all under a variety of English-sounding pseudonyms, since, white or not, the tone of those times was unforgiving for creative people of minority origins…

Eventually the artist settled on S. Bob Powell and had his name legally changed. Probably his most well-remembered and highly regarded tour of duty was on Mr. Mystic in Will Eisner’s legendary national newspaper insert The Spirit Section. After serving in World War II, Bob came home and quit to set up his own studio. Eisner never forgave him…

Powell – with assistants Howard Nostrand, Martin Epp and George Siefringer – quickly established a solid reputation for quality, versatility and reliability. They supplied a huge variety of material for Fawcett (Vic Torry & His Flying Saucer,Hot Rod Comics, Lash Larue); Harvey Comics (Man in Black, Adventures in 3-D and True 3-D) and Street & Smith’s Shadow Comics.

Powell was particularly prolific in numerous titles for Magazine Enterprises (ME), including TV tie-in Bobby Benson’s B-Bar-B Riders, Red Hawk in Straight Arrow; a short but bombastic turn with quasi-superhero Strong Man and timely sci fi frolic Jet Powers.

A master of the human form and caricature, Powell easily turned his hand to a vast range of genre staples – War, Western, Science Fiction, Crime, Comedy and Horror material – and consequently rendered, as a by-product, some of the best and most glamorous “Good Girl art” of the era, both in comics and in premiums/strip packages for business clients.

In the 1960s, he pencilled the infamous Mars Attacks cards, illustrated Bessie Little’s Teena-a-Go-Go and the Bat Masterson newspaper strip. He ended his days drawing Daredevil, the Human Torch and Giant-Man for Marvel.

This captivating hardback compilation and electrifying eBook edition gathers all the Jet Powers appearances – some possibly written by ubiquitous jobbing scripter Gardner Fox. ME publications employed a truly Byzantine method of numbering their comicbooks, but this title is little easier than most. All Jet issues were actually part of expansive umbrella anthology vehicle A-1 comics. Jet #1 was also A-1 #30 January 1951 – cover-splashed as Jet Powers and Space Ace – whilst #2-4 were A-1 #32, #35 and #39.

It makes no real difference to your enjoyment of what’s to come but satisfies my pedantic and didactic side…

This splendid tome includes a biography ‘Bob Powell (1916-1967)’, an effusive Introduction by Steve Rude and an erudite essay – ‘My First Encounter with the Two-Fisted Brainiac Jet Powers’– by John Wooley.

Jet Powers began as a classic holdover of a pristine pulp Sci Fi concept: the scientific everyman who solves all problems with razor-sharp intellect and a something he’s just handily cobbled together. Powers was actually a cut well-above the crowd of valiantly brilliant space-jockey boffins whizzing about the funnybook cosmos in the early 1950s: a cerebral genius, true, but one who nevertheless solidly stuck to the action-adventure side of the equation, and one who was ultimately mutated by world events and political frenzy into a man unrecognisable to his earlier antecedents.

We first meet “The Master of Atoms and Molecules” in Jet #1 1951 – cover-splashed as Jet Powers and Space Ace. ‘Captain of Science!’ introduces a solitary researcher roused to action after America is wracked by shattering earthquakes. It doesn’t take him long to confirm the events are being triggered by an evil enemy somewhere in Southern Asia…

Rocketing to the sinister citadel and armed with his trusty antigravity gun, Powers finds and foils the diabolical schemes of Mr Sinn while deeply upsetting the loyalties and affections of the madman’s sultry catspaw Su Shan

The villain tries again in ‘The Man in the Moon!’, with meteors raining down on earth directed by his satellite fortress, but is again thwarted by the Man of Science after which a marauding intelligent alien bug ravages Earth, with only Jet capable of foiling ‘The Thing from the Meteor’

In Jet #2 (April-June), Powers tackles an invasion from the future in ‘The Three-Million-Year-Old Men!’; Su Shan is abducted by mad scientist Marlon Stone and requires rescue from deadly beasts in ‘The House of Horror!’ after which background radiation from atomic tests grant intelligence, autonomy and megalomania to a pile of scrap who allies with Mr Sinn and propagates ‘The Metal Monsters!’ it needs to conquer Earth. Calling Jet Powers…

The tech terrors continue in Jet #3, beginning with a radioactive space cloud that cuts off sunlight. Thankfully Powers has a bold plan to destroy the The Dust Doom!’ Shockingly for the era, he does not completely succeed and the series veers into post-apocalyptic dystopia…

As Earth recovers, deranged Professor Mikla unleashes biological atrocities via ‘The Devil’s Machine’, until Powers stops him. Barely pausing for breath Jet then jousts with Martians and Venusians to fend off ‘The Interplanetary War!’

Still feeling the effects of the doom-laden space dust, Earth endures ‘The Rain of Terror!’ in #4 as a cashiered general makes a bid for global domination and Jet spearheads a libertarian resistance, after which the industry trend for genre anthology sees Powers narrate the salutary tale of ‘The First Man in History Who Could Not Die!’.

Back in action for the last time as a science warrior, Jet then defeats ‘The Fleets of Fear!’ as war is rekindled by a Martian tyrant-in-waiting…

With no fanfare or warning the hero metamorphosed to follow a developing trend for anti-communist war stories, fuelled by the escalating Korean conflict. Jet morphed into The American Air Forces and, numbering maintained – #5/A-1 #45 in this instance – introduced visually identical ‘Army Air Ace Jet Powers’. Army Air Force Captain Johnny Powers is a fighter pilot from a family of fliers operating in Korea, but apparently afflicted with psychological inhibitions rendering him useless in combat. Not for long…

After a turbulent publishing year, issue #6/A-1 #54 opened 1952 in bombastic gung-ho style as Powers laments the noble, necessary sacrifice of a comrade on ‘MiG Alley Patrol’, after which #7(A-1 #58) introduces exotic fantasy as Powers and wingman Kenneth Loomis clash with murderous Red murderess Kali Soo in an ancient temple blasphemously converted into a commie fortress in ‘Whom the Gods Destroy!’

By the time of #8 (A-1 #65) comic book propaganda was in full swing as ‘Secret of the Tunnel’ lavishly adds torture, whipping and women in chains to the material Yankee kids could read. Despite being a jet ace, Powers spent a lot of time surviving crashes and battling on terra firma. After this fortuitous landing, he saves a slave girl and falls into a cavern full of North Korean ordnance he knows just how to ignite…

More of the same comes as 1952 closes as #9 (A-1 #69) finds him rescuing a downed buddy and narrowly dodging hundreds of ‘Bayonets Dipped in Blood!’, before 1953 opens with – and ends his service – in #12 (A-1 #91) with an actual aerial exploit as the fighter pilot downs a couple of MiGs, and narrowly avoids the typical Commie skulduggery of ‘The Death Trap’.

With the artistic action ended, this compelling compendium concludes with an incisive appreciation of the multi-talented hero courtesy of essay ‘The Jet Age’ by James Vance and John Wooley.

Despite my quibbles and cavils – and some genuine concerns about racial and gender holdover subtext of material produced 70 years ago – this book celebrates one of the mostly beautifully rendered characters in pictorial fiction and is a true tribute to the astounding talents of Bob Powell and his team. If you love perfect comic storytelling (of its time), but transcending fashion or trendiness, this is a treasure just waiting to be rediscovered.

Bob Powell’s Complete Jet Powers compilation © 2015 Kitchen, Lind and Associates LLC. Introduction © 2015 Steve Rude. “My First Encounter with the Two-Fisted Brainiac Jet Powers” © 2015 John Wooley. “The Jet Age” essay © 2015 James Vance and John Wooley. All rights reserved.

Bosnian Flat Dog


By Max Andersson & Lars Sjunnesson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-740-7 (PB)

Very much in the far-too-large category of “why is this out of print and not available digitally?”, here’s a bizarre treat from long ago that you can still find with luck and persistence. And you should…

This manic lost gem is a startling and powerful excursion into the “collective unconsciousness of the Balkans” which resulted in a surprisingly compelling and funny tale from two of Sweden’s finest comic makers. It first emerged appeared in Death & Candy #2-4 before being remastered for this deliciously dark and daft tome which broke loose in 2006. Ostensibly, this is the account of a journey by the creators to Slovenia and an alternative cartoonists convention that spirals inescapably into a manic road-movie quest.

Just after they decide to reimburse an old friend for a story they had “borrowed” for their latest comic creation, an out-of-control ice cream truck begins shooting at them. After miraculously surviving, they discover amongst the debris an engraved grenade shell with the word “Sarajevo” on it. Taking this as sign that they must do the right thing, they resolutely embark on a Kafka-esque trip to the troubled Balkans. Along the way they encounter zombies, mummies, war atrocities and a man who has a refrigerator in his car containing the corpse of Marshal Tito (look him up if you have to and, in your next life, stay awake in history class).

Not to mention that rare breed of hound: The Bosnian Flat Dog

More treatise than adventure, and savagely underpinned by the appalling realities of the Sarajevo crisis at its worst, this thought-provoking psycho-comedy has compelling pictures, dark whimsy and enough fourth-wall contravention to supply the reader with much metaphysical and social meat to digest long after they’ve finished reading. As surreal as it seems, though, there is still a distressing amount of truth still to be found amid the icons of the fantasy world. This is a damned compelling book if you want a read that will wake you up and not lull you to sleep.
© 2006 Max Andersson & Lars Sjunnesson. All rights reserved.

The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime


By Ted Cowan, Jerry Siegel & Reg Bunn (Rebellion)
ISBN 978-1-78108-905-7 (TPB)

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at certain comic collections is to make sure to remove the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week in the long ago and long-missed.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself – no pleasant task, I assure you – I can honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling, caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two (later three) pages per episode, so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

Part of Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics strand and available in paperback and digital editions, The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime is the opening salvo of what I hope is many welcome returnees. It gathers material from peerless weekly anthology Lion spanning June 26th 1965 to June 18th 1966 and that year’s Lion Annual which for laborious reasons is designated 1967.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal of all time. As conceived by writer/editor Ted Cowan – who among many other venerable triumphs, also scripted Ginger Nutt, Paddy Payne, Adam Eterno, and created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – the flamboyantly wicked narcissist begins his public career by recruiting a crime specialists safecracker Roy Ordini and evil inventor Professor Pelham before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

A major factor in the eerily eccentric strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating – not to say downright creepy – artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His intensely hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing or more believable weird weapons and monsters.

Bunn was an absolute master of his field art whose work in comics – spanning 1949 to his death in 1971 – such as Robin Hood, Buck Jones, Black Hood, Captain Kid and Clip McCord – was much beloved. Once the industry found him, he was never without work. He died on the job and is still much missed.

Also scripted by Cowan, second adventure ‘The Return of the Spider’ sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a swaggering arrogant super-criminal who uses incredible optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider must crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity.

The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but must settle for his defeated rival after weeks of devious plotting, bold banditry and spectacular serialized thrills and chills.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to the Man of Steel.

The aforementioned criminal scientist of the title here is another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle – broken on repeated occasions by a crafty subplot wherein the mastermind’s treacherous, newly-expanded gang of thugs seek to abscond with his stockpiled loot whenever he appears to have been killed – is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics.

By the time of the final serialised saga herein contained – ‘The Spider v. The Android Emperor’ – the page count was up to 4: packed with fabulous fantasy and increasingly surreal exploits as the Arachnid Archvillain battles the super science of a monster-making maniac who might have survived the sinking of Atlantis but somehow gets his fun from baiting and tormenting the self-styled king of crime. Big mistake…

The book concludes with a short yarn from the 1967 Lion Annual. ‘Cobra Island’ gives the artist a chance to show off his skills with brushes and washes as the piece was originally printed in the double-tone format (in this case black and red on white) which was a hallmark of British annuals.

It finds the mighty Spider and Pelham drawn to an exotic island where plantation workers are falling under the spell of a demonic lizard being… but all is not as it seems and the very real danger is more prosaic than paranormal…

Also offering an introduction from Paul Grist and full creator biographies, this initial collection confirms that the King is back at last and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

Bizarre, baroque and often simply bonkers, The Spider proves that although crime does not pay, it always provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun…
© 1965, 1966, 1967 & 2021 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Contraband


By Thomas J. Behe & Philip Elliott(Markosia)
ISBN: 978-1913802608 (TPB)

For old geezers like me, the world is a rapidly changing, increasingly dangerous, infinitely incomprehensible and ultimately uncomfortable place. Thankfully, there are still a few things I recognise and understand – like human nature and good comics.

Those are the prime points of graphic salutary warning Contraband, as crafted by doodling veteran Phil Elliott (Tales from Gimbley; The Real Ghostbusters; Illegal Alien and many more) and hopefully not-too prescient scribe Thomas J. Behe. Here they communally invite you into a very imminent tomorrow (heck, it actually feels like the proverbial “20 minutes into the future”, in some places), proving that no matter how much things change, they basically stay the same…

Quite soon now, the utter ubiquity of mobile phones, cameras, social media platforms, greed and human hunger for attention will create a new industry. Everybody films stuff on their phones – and criminal lawyers and cops are all too grateful for that – but when video clips can be uploaded for untraceable cash and kudos to dark web app Contraband, that content is increasingly skewed towards cruel, erotic, violent, humiliating or simply disgusting criminal acts.

Successful contributors earn plenty, but the true draw is the cachet of topping the highly-competitive chart of Likes, with the public being the truly democratic arbiters of modern taste and morality…

The world is still recovering from spirit-crushing and corporation-enhancing middle eastern wars, but back in ostensibly unshaken London, all anyone can think of is getting something juicy onto social media. One of those ambitious dreamers is self-styled citizen-journalist Toby, whose recording of an illegal act propels him into the middle of a secret war for control of the voyeurs’ underworld.

His brief moment of fame leads to his being targeted by villainous wideboy Tucker, who – since his return from Afghanistan – has embraced private enterprise as boss of Contraband, aided only – it would seem – by his hulking, deceptively deep henchman and technical adviser Plugger.

Their sordid lives are not all sunshine, roses and sleaze. A bill is going through Parliament to limit online abuse, and an anti-violence campaign led by charismatic demagogue Jarvis Stevens is stirring up the wrong kind of muck and attention. Most importantly, Tucker’s former Afghan associate Charlotte is in hiding. She has access to very damaging dirt that the internet entrepreneur needs to neuter now…

That’s where Toby comes in. For absolutely inexplicable reasons, Tucker believes the baffled neophyte can prise her from whatever bolthole she’s in and makes life extremely uncomfortable until he agrees to try. However, as he sets to, the digital innocent is swamped by conflicting stories and vile revelations, quickly learning no one can trust anyone else…

That’s especially after discovering a rogue program is loose out in the wild, able to switch absolute control of Contraband’s codes, cash resources and library to one person. Now, rivalling the hunt for Charlotte, is a desperate race to find the magic gimmick and become king of the ghastly hill…

Oppressive, paranoid, violent and disturbing, this sublimely inventive yarn combines crime thriller with spy mystery and delivers a splendid sequence of byzantine futuristic shocks, deliciously delineated in a potently understated fashion.

First published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2008, this dark and timely construction gets a fresh lease on life – and possible repeat fees – thanks to Markosia, so don’t miss the opportunity to safely see the world that’s coming… before it sees you.
™ & © Thomas Behe & Phil Elliott. All rights reserved.

Contraband is scheduled for publication on May 10th 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

IR$ volume 1: Taxing Trails


By Vranken & Desberg, coloured by Coquelicot: translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-51-9 (Album PB)

The most appetising thing about European comics (and manga too, although we only ever see the tip of that vast iceberg in English) is the sheer breadth of genres, styles and age ranges of material available.

The same used to be true of British and US comics, but creeping cultural colonisation by calcified fan-bases has slowly but surely eradicated many types of tale that might pique interest beyond the generalised ghettoes of superheroes, space opera, sexy horror and merchandised adaptations. Even crime and war comics are a rare exception these days.

Thus, finding that this quirky but exceedingly readable thriller series with a tantalising twist has finally arrived as eBooks is a welcome treat even if the Franco-Belgian original first saw print in 1999.

The unlikely champion of these sagas is a civil servant with the US government. Once upon a time these dedicate civil servants started employing super-cool and infallibly effective agents to go after the type of tax dodger far beyond the reach of the law. These days, every country should have one…

Belgian writer Stephen Desberg remains one of the bestselling comics authors in France. Son of an American lawyer (who was the distribution agent for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) and a French mother, he was born in Brussels in 1954 and studied law at Université Libre de Bruxelles. However, he dropped out to follow a winding path into the comics biz…

Starting with plots and eventually scripts for Will (AKA Willy Maltaite) on Tif et Tondu in Le Journal de Spirou, he developed into a reliable jobbing creator on established strips for younger readers before launching his own in the Stéphane Colman illustrated Billy the Cat (a funny animal strip, not the DC Thomson superhero series).

Thereafter came 421 with Eric Maltaite, Arkel (Marc Hardy), Jimmy Tousseul (with Daniel Desorgher) and many others. During the 1980s, he gradually redirected his efforts to material for older readerships (such as The Garden of Desire), and in 1999 created this modern thriller before capping it all a year later with exuberant historical drama Le Scorpion joining his catalogue of major hits.

Bernard Vranken was an award-winning artist by the time he was fifteen and working on Le Journal de Tintin a year later. Whilst studying architecture at Saint-Luc, he took some comics courses by legendary illustrator Eddy Paape at St. Gilles and his true career path was set. Vranken was crafting short stories for A Suivre when he met Desberg, and in 1996 they collaborated for the first time on epic romance Le Sang Noir. Three years later they traded love for money and launched IR$

The premise is simple and delicious, and this English edition doubles your money by combining the first two albums – La voie fiscal and La stratégie Hagen – into one compelling compilation.

As Taxing Trails it opens with stylish American mystery man Larry B. Max calling his new favourite chat-line girl Gloria Paradise (Larry hates complications in his life) to kill some time before heading out.

A few days previously a Swiss banker had been rather ostentatiously splurging cash on a visit to California when he ended up as a freeway statistic. However, his spending spree and sudden demise raised a few red flags…

A right place, wrong time kind of guy, Larry was decisively ending a convenience store hold-up he’d stumbled into when he got a call and soon was working his way up a deadly chain of wealthy reprobates trying to track down who had issued the contract on the banker…

Before long Max identifies the former Luc Cretier as a minor banker and major blackmailer who pushed someone too hard and paid the price. That said, the person he was putting the squeeze to is of far more interest to the tax detective.

Jewish-American Abraham Loewenstein is a rags-to-riches holocaust survivor who turned tragedy into a life of success and good works. Larry, however, has seen something the rest of the world has not, and his interview with the aged activist (as an author investigating the scandal of Jewish gold illegally held in Swiss Banks) puts him on another profitable track…

Those esteemed institutions always found some legal chicanery to deny the claims of survivors and family members who tried to attempted to retrieve their property, but recent years – due to the efforts of people like Loewenstein – have seen frustrated victims begin to win justice through court cases exposing bank practises.

Now Larry’s forensic investigation leads straight to those so-secretive Swiss Banks and a generations-long scandal regarding the illegal retention and redistribution of Jewish funds deposited whilst Hitler was rising to power.

Although the Nazis are apparently long gone, their heritage of plunder remains in those Helvetic vaults and somehow, enigmatic, untouchable multi-billionaire survivor of the Death Camps Moshe Geldhof is involved…

Larry knows he’s on to something when his car is sabotaged and less feasible accidents – such as a girl on a motorbike blasting him with a machinegun – complicate his investigation. Undaunted, he confronts Geldhof in a fancy New York restaurant and finds hot lead is the first course on the menu…

After Abraham is murdered for knowing too much, a spectacular, breakneck car chase results in Max arresting Geldhof, but for once, the infallible tax man has grossly underestimated the sheer power of money…

The story concludes in The Hagen Strategy as the scene shifts to 1943 for the incredible truth about Moshe Geldhof, as the indefatigable Max delves deeper into the history of the man who has the ear of governments, especially Israel’s…

In America, the man himself seems to be “too big to fail” but his sudden liberation only pushes Larry to greater efforts. That means heading to Bern and cultivating the attentions of Geldof’s ferociously Amazonian daughter Lenni whilst dear daddy is tangled in red tape…

No sooner has Larry broached the palatial fortress-like mansion, however, than the sinister patron turns up and the hunt is on, with a cadre of heavily armed killers at his well-shod heels…

Larry has finally gleaned the true appalling secret of the contemporary Croesus and the truth is something his government can’t cover up for him. Now he has only one possible ally in his all-or-nothing war against the money-man… and places a call to Mossad.

Sleek, lean, almost Spartan in its lithe, muscular tribute to James Bond movies, IR$ is a splendidly effective, stylishly gritty thriller series to delight fans of modern mayhem in all its literary and artistic forms.

Only death and taxes are inescapable, and Larry B. Max offers either or both in one suavely economical package…
Original edition © 1977 EDITIONS DU LOMBARD (Dargaud-Lombard) 1999-2000 by Desberg &Vrancken. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Louise Brooks: Detective


By Rick Geary (NBM/Comics/Lit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-952-6 (HB)

Rick Geary is a unique talent not simply because of his style of drawing but especially because of his tale-telling methodology. He’s best known for crime examinations via his Treasury of Victorian Murder and Treasury of XXth Century Murder series but also worked for decades as an Underground cartoonist and freelance illustrator of strange stories, published in locales as varied as Heavy Metal, Epic Illustrated, Twisted Tales, National Lampoon, Bizarre Sex, RAW, High Times and elsewhere. He possesses a unique gift for sublimely understated storytelling: stringing together seemingly unconnected streams of narrative to compose moving, often melancholy and always beguiling yarns. He is an international treasure.

Geary has grown into a grand master and unique presence in both comics and true crime literature through those aforementioned forensic reconstructions. He has entertainingly analysed some of the most infamous murder mysteries since policing began, but here marvellously repurposes his eye for historical verity to concoct something new and truly fascinating.

A fixation with mercurial silent movie star Louise Brooks coincides with the recorded historical facts of her fall from global fame and subsequent disappearance into the American heartland. A little casual speculation, a few wry ruminations and this is the result…

In ‘Louise: An Introduction’, Geary précis’ how, for a brief flickering moment in 1927, dancer/actress Louise Brooks was the toast of global cinema: her face known from America to Zanzibar before she inexplicably declined to renew her Paramount Pictures contract, moved to Germany to star in erotic classic Pandora’s Box and began an inexorable decline into obscurity.

She returned to the US in 1930, but parts were hard to find. Returning to club dancing, she married twice and divorced both men by 1940 when, aged 33, she suddenly chucked everything and returned to the family home in Kansas…

Following a triptych of the author’s trademark maps (Central Wichita, the area south east of the city and rural Burden, Kansas in 1941-1942) the cartoon chapter-play begins with ‘Back to Wichita’ as Louise retreats to a fractious, unwelcoming Brooks household and desperately begins hunting for a job. Increasingly, however, she is drawn into the town’s only topic of conversation: the seemingly impossible “locked-room” murder of wealthy widow Edna Leach, which is like something out of a movie…

Louise strikes up an acquaintance with a mousy shop assistant at the music store, but ‘My Friend Helen’ only has two topics of conversation: her never-seen boyfriend Walden Pond and the grisly demise of Mrs. Leach…

After America enters World War II and her latest business venture fails, Louise sets upon a new career path as a writer. Such ‘A Pilgrimage’ is daunting so she seeks out a former New York playwright who has lately taken residence in nearby Burden.

Borrowing her brother’s car, she sets off one morning in June 1942, having first made plans to meet Helen and her elusive beau, but encounters ‘Unforeseen Difficulties’ and stumbles upon a deeply personal tragedy inadequately explained by ‘Helen’s Story’

Finding herself lost in the middle of an actual murder mystery where everything is painfully real and terrifying, the performer soon realises she even has doubts about ‘The Victim’ and reluctantly takes on the unlikely role of ‘Louise Brooks, Detective’

It’s a part she was born to play, but after nearly losing her own life putting together the disparate strands and winkling out the culprit, she says ‘Farewell, Wichita’ and heads back to New York with reinvigorated dreams and her future again filled with untapped potential…

Combining a superlative talent for laconic prose, incisive observation and meticulously detailed pictorial extrapolation with his fascination with the lethal propensities of humanity, Geary’s forensic eye has scoured police blotters, newspaper archives and history books to compile his irresistibly enthralling documentaries. Happily, all that expertise is soundly utilised for his first major fiction feature and once again he has proved bloody murder is always a black and white affair…

A superbly engaging crime conundrum available in doughty hardback and accessible digital formats, the only thing that could improve this book is a sequel…
© 2015 Rick Geary.

A Thousand Coloured Castles


By Gareth Brookes (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-0-993563-30-0 (HB)

The world is filled with amazing women passing largely unnoticed by the loud, shouty males with their hands on the tillers of history and the media, but seldom the kettle or shopping bags. This amazing tale is broadly based on one of them…

It comes to us from an equally intriguing source. Gareth Brookes is a capital-A Artist, printmaker, textile creator and educator who began literally crafting comics in 2015 with his astounding and disturbing epic (and forthcoming review) The Black Project.

With A Thousand Coloured Castles, RCA graduate Brookes sealed a growing reputation for challenging and rewarding graphic narratives of the artisanal kind. Brookes is a deep and slyly humorous thinker with his roots in the Littlest of Englands and a skewed eye to storytelling. This captivating hardback tome was created solely from dark wit and wax crayons, resulting in a truly tactile and absurdly otherworldly viewing experience…

Myriam is in her declining years: married to a set-in-his-ways old know-it-all curmudgeon, as seen in most traditionally happy families and captured on paper by Raymond Briggs and TV sitcoms by Richard Wilson.

Fred spends most of his time complaining about everything, which is why it takes a very long time for him to notice that Myriam’s eyesight is fading. It takes even longer for him to grasp that she’s increasingly subject to wild, abstract and utterly convincing hallucinations: vivid visions and shapes that baffle and bewilder even as they light up her drab, interminable existence.

Of more concern to Fred is the wife’s increasing fascination with the overgrown, unkempt back garden next door. He’s happy to moan about it in private but doesn’t want to engage in potential suburban hostilities with the woman living there.

Myriam, however, keeps seeing a strange bedraggled little boy trapped there, even though everybody knows that’s not possible. All except her toddler grandson Jack, who’s always happy to see things her way…

And thus unfolds a multi-layered observation of social norms and aberrant behaviours, supposition and expectation, declining faculties and domestic evil that is truly magical to behold and impossible to predict.

Despite her condition, Myriam proves that she knows what’s what and what’s right as events spiral to an inevitable conclusion and answers are shockingly forthcoming…

Gentle, genteel and utterly beguiling, this is a masterpiece of British fantasy understatement with a potent underpinning of quietly desperate lives truly lived…
© Gareth Brookes 2017. All rights reserved.

Sacred Heart


By Liz Suburbia (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-841-0

What would have happened when you were a teenager and your parents went away for the weekend?

What if they didn’t come back for four years? And what if the same thing happened to every household in your little town at the same time?

Visually, elements of Charles Burns and Johnny Ryan crackle and charm beside graphic echoes of the Hernandez Brothers in Sacred Heart: the stunning graphic novel which tackles the conundrum with perspicacity, near-feral insight, righteous anger and a great deal of sentiment-free warmth.

As much mystery thriller as “Having Come of Age” tale, the mesmerising story opens in little everytown Alexandria which at first glance seems to have gotten a little rowdy of late, but for all the late-night drinking, hot-rodding, incessant partying, lewd behaviour and hijinks is carrying on as best it can.

The older teens are looking after the little kids, school is still attended, the local store still carries provisions and life goes on pretty much as before, even though there hasn’t been a responsible adult in situ for years…

Ben Schiller cares for her rapidly maturing – and consequently increasingly difficult – little sister Empathy; her life-long nerdy punk friend Otto still works part-time at the video store – when he’s not stealing girls’ panties – and he and she still watch weird movies most evenings, trading gossip and stories about who they’re currently seeing…

Elsewhere in their unique community, local garage-band The Crotchmen are the only good thing to see of an evening and Erica’s baby still hasn’t come.

Jocks still act like meatheads and the pretty girls still chase them whilst standoffish Ben remains involved but apart. She isn’t ignored or reviled these days as she’s devised a method of tattooing which makes her a vital component of the new society…

Recently though, some of the little kids have been acting a little weird: descending into mysticism and fortune telling whilst default storekeeper Jack Brown is claiming that soon he won’t be able to get any more booze or gas for the town’s remaining functional cars, but of course the real downer is how many of the older teens have been found murdered in the last few weeks…

The kids all apparently accept the growing “Dead Kids Club” as a part of life in their little town, but as the summer of excess rolls on towards Fall, things start to change. Firstly Ben and Otto endanger the perfect friendship by bringing sex into the equation, after which an actual adult is seen in town but escapes and Crotchmen’s lead singer joins the casualty list and is replaced with a girl.

Hulking drummer Hugo starts planning how to take his little charges and break out to freedom as the kindergarten seers all predict the end of everything is coming, but worst of all, as colossal storm clouds gather, when Ben discovers who the serial killer is, she can do nothing about it…

Compiled and cunningly rearranged from her webcomic, Liz Suburbia’s chilling yarn is potent, uncompromising yet guardedly hopeful: a glimpse at teenagers who terrify all us old farts as they deal with a dangerous world not by crumbling as we assume they will, but by rising to the challenge and accepting the responsibilities we probably wouldn’t.

Gripping, compelling, rewarding and astoundingly readable, this is a book to exult in.
Sacred Heart © 2015, Liz Surburbia. This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.